30 Years, 30 Stories: The New Kids in School

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2018 marks JCMU’s 30th anniversary since our founding in 1988. To celebrate, we will be posting 30 JCMU stories of 30 different JCMU alumni from 1989 to 2018 every Thursday from mid-February through September!

Did you explore another culture while in high school? For our twelfth installment in the “30 Years, 30 Stories” series, read about the Michigan-Shiga High School Exchange class of 2017, and learn about how life-changing international experiences aren’t just for college students.


It was a summer afternoon like any other. Tanner, Gracie, and the rest of their classmates sat around a local museum, waiting for their classes to be dismissed. Outside, the sun’s blistering heat seemed to be pushing people into the nearby lake for a refreshing swim. School friends were wandering the streets together, discussing the latest happenings and trends. It was just another hot Michigan day.

Well, except for the fact that they were over 6,000 miles from home.

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This was the first day of the 2017 Michigan-Shiga High School Exchange. On this program, 15 Michigan students lived with a host sibling around their age in Shiga Prefecture over the summer. “It took some time to get used to being in Japan, but my family made me feel very welcome! I felt at home almost instantly,” Gracie remarked.

International travel can be like jumping into a great unknown, especially for those that never left the country before. For many of the students, this was their first time traveling abroad – and as such, they had no idea what to expect from their host families and the community they were set to join. Particularly in Japan, many wondered if they would be able to effectively communicate with others. However, Tanner happily discovered that these fears were quickly put to the wayside: “I was shocked by how well they spoke English and how enthusiastic they were about learning. They would always encourage me to correct their speaking, and they were very helpful about teaching me more Japanese.”

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After getting over their initial concerns, it was time to explore. From traditional shrines to modern cities, there was a lot to discover together with their newfound Shiga family. “I loved going to shrines and castles,” Sydney told us. “I love history and old buildings and I also got to see my host family have fun as well.” Food adventures were also abundant: when asked what Eryn’s favorite thing they did with their host family, they exclaimed “eating sushi, of course!”

Though they were halfway around the world, the Michigan students still attended school. However, unlike the typical school life they were accustomed to in the U.S., in Shiga they got a chance to experience life as a Japanese student at their host sibling’s school. There, they instantly became the talk of the school, with Koby even going so far as to say that he “felt like a celebrity!” While at school, they helped out at culture & sports festivals, assisted their English language instructors, participated in club activities, and more.

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More than just cultural immersion, they truly become another member of their host’s family. “I loved hanging out with my host sibling after school. He would take me to the end of the train line, walk me around in his town, and take me to eat at really cool places,” Tanner reminisced. If an interest in Japan is what brought the Michigan students to Japan, then these connections with their host families were what caused them to truly fall in love with their newfound second homes. As Joi told us, “My host family made everything amazing. They were so welcoming and I miss them so much.”

Sadly, as all good things, their time in Japan had to come to an end. After just a few short weeks, the Michigan students waved goodbye to their host families at the airport. However, there was more to come soon: just a few weeks later, the Japanese students would trade places and visit them in Michigan.

Mimicking their first day in Japan, the Shiga siblings arrived on a Michigan summer afternoon like any other. This time, though, it would be their siblings that were over 6,000 miles from home. After the Shiga students arrived, the newly reunited siblings seemed like like they’d never been apart before. The whole event was very “emotional” for Shania, and she said that “right when [my Japanese sibling] saw me she ran and hugged me!”

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In Michigan, the Japanese siblings gained a new family in Michigan, and they experienced the life of a high-schooler in the U.S. The students and their families traveled to Mackinac Island, Michigan’s Adventure, and Frankenmuth. They went camping, rode roller coasters, swam in the Great Lakes, and much more. The siblings went to school together, where the students helped out in class, participated in band activities, and made new friends. As Tanner told us, “I liked being able to get closer to him personally [while in the States]. We were more comfortable with each other so we really opened up and were able to really get to know each other.” All-in-all, the Japanese students were able to have the same loving, immersive experience that the Michigan students had in Shiga.

Though the 2017 program has concluded, its impact on the participants and their families will last a lifetime. So to other high-schoolers considering going on the program, Gracie says “to just go for it. Even if they have doubts about going abroad, it is an amazing experience!”

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Funding for the Michigan-Shiga High School Exchange is made possible in part by the JBSD Foundation’s generosity. Our 2017 students below would like to thank the JBSD Foundation for their part in making their international adventure possible:

  • “Thank you so much for helping me to further my interest and education about Japan. I am very appreciative and feel that the trip changed my life! Previously I was interested in Japan, but now I am thinking about studying Japanese in college and working in a field that I can use Japanese.”
             – Eryn
  • “I really appreciate how they helped me, because this experience is something that I could never put a price tag on. The people I met and the experiences I had were so incredibly valuable to me, so I greatly appreciate the support that allowed me to do this.”
             – Tanner
  • “Without it I wouldn’t have been able to go. I’m so very grateful for the opportunity they provided me. Without it I would have never met my Shiga family.”
             – Shania
  • “The scholarship helped make my trip possible. Because it was far more affordable my parents and siblings were willing to help pay for it and give me this opportunity.”
             – Sydney
  • “From the bottom of my heart, thank you. I sincerely appreciate your generosity.”
             – Jillian
  • “I am so thankful for the funding. If it weren’t for the generosity of others, I would not have been able to go on this life changing journey.”
             – Gracie

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